Bullied: A Confession

February 28, 2010

I was bullied growing up. A lot. I was an easy target: shy, skinny, insecure, quick-to-cry, and, most crucially, slow-to-tattle. For some unGodly reason, I didn’t rat out my tormenters, no matter the offense. A kid who doesn’t tell is the Ultimate Lottery Ticket for playground thugs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bullying lately. Actually, if I’m honest, I started thinking about bullying 9 years ago, when I got pregnant with Miss D. I remember talking to my mother over grilled cheese and soup, saying, “I hope this kid has more spirit than I had. I was a wimpy kid. I’ve always hated that about myself. I want this kid to be tougher.”

The Good News: Miss D. certainly has spirit. In spades.

The Bad News: Miss D. is incredibly sensitive. Like her Mama, tears well up in her eyes easily and often. And when I see those tears, a cold shiver rattles through me. I can’t help it. I both cherish and mourn that soft little heart.

Miss D. learned about bullies last year, in first grade. First. Grade. I couldn’t believe that we were facing the Ugly Dragon so early in her school career. But life isn’t fair, eh? So I tried to navigate her through the minefield as best I could, and we did okay, I think. But it’s a long and jagged road ahead of us; just thinking about it deflates me.

I thought about bullies the other day, when I was going through a shoebox of old photos and stumbled across this one.

This photo was taken my senior year in high school. A group of kids from Advanced Biology took a week-long whitewater rafting trip down the Yampa and the Green Rivers. I was a member of that group. So was Jill.

That rafting trip was filled with thrills, hi-jinks and hilarity. It also had a surprise waiting for me–a surprise that had a lot to do with Jill.

A little background. Jill was odd. Odd enough to place her far, far down on the social food chain. On that food chain, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call Jill a paramecium.

Parameciums eat lunch alone. They sit in the library alone. They are the last ones chosen for the flag-football team in Phys. Ed. I’ll stop there–you know who I’m talking about. Every school has them.

It also didn’t help that Jill had bright orange hair and ghostly white skin and was blanketed in hundreds of freckles. She sported glasses. And braces. And outdated, off-brand athletic shoes.

Jill was in my section of Advanced Biology. One day, when I was out with strep throat, our class chose lab partners for the dreaded Rat Project.

Every year, the Rat Project struck fear in the hearts of Advanced Biology students. The Rat Project was a month-long, intensive dissection of an enormous white rat. Each pair of students got its own formaldehyde-soaked specimen right after Thanksgiving. And if, by Holiday break, the dissection wasn’t completed, one student in the pair toted that rat home and stuck it in the deep freeze for a few weeks. Just the idea of shlepping a half dissected rodent, the size of a cat, home…to cram in beside the ice cream and the Stouffer’s dinners? It gave me the willies.

Long story short: because I was absent on partner-picking day, I got Jill. When I learned that I’d be spending a month alone with Jill and a gi-normous, reeking rat, I was less than pleased. I am ashamed to say that I even sulked a little.

What I didn’t know was that being paired with Jill was a happy accident in disguise. Turns out, Jill loved dissection. She was good at it, too. She enthusiastically tore into Godzilla (our rat) and had him rationed into tiny, dessicated bits in no time. When Holiday break came around, we bid Godzilla goodbye. No deep freeze for us.

After the Rat Project, I forgot about Jill. She went back to her own table and her paramecium existence. And then Spring came. Jill and I were assigned to the same raft on the Yampa Adventure. Again, I was less than thrilled–a week in a small raft with Jill and a handful of others, attempting pleasant chit chat and paddling like mad? Yick.

The first morning, Jill emerged from her tent slathered, head-to-toe, in a heavy layer of zinc oxide. The snickers and remarks were immediate.

“God, doesn’t she know what normal sunscreen looks like?”
“Who’s Casper?”
“EEK! Bright light! Bright light! Mogwai!”
“Hey, Marshmallow girl!”

I was furious. Nice. Our raft was a laughingstock. Jill adjusted her floppy hat and pretended not to hear, paddling harder than the rest of us.

One night during the trip, I couldn’t sleep. In truth, I hadn’t slept much the entire week. The ground was hard and lumpy and the tent smelled funny and the spring nights were shockingly cold. I’m an indoor girl. Restless, I grabbed my jacket and headed outside. I wandered along the river for a while, listening to it burble and eddy beside me. When I got to a group of large rocks, I was surprised to see a long-haired figure sitting there. Jill.

“Can’t sleep?” I said.
She shrugged.
“I am so not a camper,” I said. “I hate how lumpy the ground is. My tent smells weird, too, like wet dog or something.”
She didn’t answer.
“Wasn’t that gross today?” I rattled, plopping down on a neighboring rock. “All of those water crickets we ran into? Ewwww.” I shivered. “Those things were freaking huge.”
Pause. “That was kinda gross.”
“Jeez, I’m freezing. How long have you been out here?”
“I’m out here every night.” She pointed skyward. “You can see the stars really well from here.”
“They are pretty. I have no idea what I’m looking at, though.”
“Not even the dippers, there?”
She laughed a little. And then she pointed out each constellation, one by one, patiently guiding me through them and explaining what I was seeing.
“That’s cool. You know a lot about stars.”
She shrugged. “My dad bought me a telescope when I was nine.”
We talked about stars and planets and space until, teeth chattering, I headed for the stinky comfort of my tent.
“Thanks,” I said, over my shoulder. “For the lesson.”

I’d like to say that Jill and I became friends after that. I’d like to say that for the remainder of my high school year, I smiled at Jill and chatted with her in the hall. I’d like to say that I told everyone in the raft the next morning how much Jill knew about stars. I’d like to say that. But I didn’t do any of those things.

I never bullied Jill, but I bore witness. I did nothing to stop the giggles and eye rolls and barbed remarks. It’s not something I’m proud of, particularly since I was bullied as a kid and knew the collateral damage. I knew, and I did nothing. And those who do nothing aren’t much better than the ones hurling the insults, are they?

I attended my 10-year high-school reunion, hoping to see Jill there. Hoping to tell her that I was sorry. That she taught me a lot that night. Of course, she did not attend. Why on Earth would she want to see us again, walk into a room of old, ugly faces?

It’s something I hope to tell Miss D. someday. How one night, one starry spring night, a freckled girl taught her mother a lesson. In more ways than one.

{ 1 comment }

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